How to Run a Fast Marathon: 3 Ways to Jump Start Your Training

Did you know that the marathon is 99% aerobic and only 1% anaerobic?

Fast Marathon

This simply means that a good marathon performance is based almost entirely on your endurance, or aerobic capacity. It requires virtually no anaerobic workouts (those hard interval repeats on the track) during your training period – your heart rate and respiration are going to stay well below your maximum for the entire race.

In fact, if you divided marathon into 1% segments, the length of the race that’s anaerobic is only about 400 meters. Your training time is best served preparing for the other 99% of the race – by primarily training your aerobic system. With the right workouts, you’ll get much closer to your goal of running a fast marathon.

The RYBQ Training Philosophy

For marathoners, speed development isn’t done with classic interval workouts. For the majority of runners, there is no need to run VO2 or similar workouts for the marathon. This goes contrary to popular belief as many runners want to improve their speed over the distance.

But to run faster over 26.2 miles, you have to increase your endurance. If you’re a 41 year old woman and you can run a 4:00 marathon (or about 9 minutes per mile), an ambitious goal would be to qualify for Boston in 3:45 (5 minutes under the BQ time). This new marathon time is about 8:35 per mile – a significant improvement in mile pace.

It’s entirely achievable through almost entirely aerobic conditioning. You need to run more – strategically – to increase your body’s endurance to hold a faster pace for longer. That’s where key marathon workouts and training program adjustments can help you crush your BQ goal.

This principle applies to faster runners too. I ran the 2011 Philadelphia Marathon in 2:39 and did virtually no anaerobic (or fast intervals) workouts prior to the race. My main workouts included:

  1. Hard long runs with 4-9 miles at marathon pace at the end of the run
  2. 13-15 mile medium long runs that included 4-6 miles of tempo running
  3. Plenty of neuromuscular work in the form of strides, surges, hill sprints, and very short track intervals
  4. A small handful of 5k-10k paced efforts during the taper phase

These workouts made up the majority of my marathon training and helped me PR by over 5 minutes.

My goal was straight-forward: develop specific marathon endurance by getting comfortable at six-minute pace when tired and grow my aerobic capacity as much as possible.

By the end of my Philadelphia training, my long run was 22 miles with 3 x 3 miles during the second half in 18:48, 18:05, and 17:46 with a mile recovery in between each. I ran 15 miles with 8k at progressively faster than marathon pace. My other key workouts were more 13 milers with tempo runs than you could shake a stick at.

These workouts sounds intense, but none of them were very “fast”. Every time I laced up my running shoes, I never approached my red-line speed or heart rate.

Investments in aerobic capacity are small deposits that pay large dividends later. On the other hand, fast interval-based workouts are like quick paydays that you have to spend soon. They don’t last and you have to repay…with interest.

In addition to these main workouts, a small amount of neuromuscular work helps keep your leg turnover high and improves your stride and efficiency. You can get all of these benefits by running post-run strides, weekly hill sprints, or short surges at the end of moderate distance runs. I did them about twice a week and they helped keep me sharp without over-taxing my legs.

Three Marathon Workouts to Help You Crush It

Your marathon workouts should follow a similar structure. The principle of aerobic development applies to any runner who hopes to run a fast marathon or qualify for Boston – build that engine as powerful as you can.

There are three primary workouts and training strategies that you should focus on as you prepare for a marathon. All of them develop strength and will help you run faster for longer.

The long run: Aim to run at least 20 miles before your marathon. If you have several months before your race and you’re already in good shape, run more 20 mile runs (a 20 miler every week for a month is better than just one!). You can also run slightly longer and hit 21-22 miles for your long run, but any longer and you may sacrifice your other workouts. Remember, only run what your body is capable of handling.

Aerobic Boost: At the end of your long run, do a few miles at marathon pace. Not only are you recruiting more muscle fibers in a fatigued state, but you’re mentally preparing your body to run fast when it’s tired. Alternatively, run long hill climbs of 10-15 minutes or hilly terrain at the end of your long run.

Run more mileage: Run more, get faster – it’s simple, but not easy. The enhanced aerobic stimulus of an extra 10-20% increase in weekly mileage will make you a much better runner. Most runners run workouts way too fast and end up running short runs to recover. Instead, skip the intervals and run more.

Aerobic Boost: Be selective about how you boost your volume. Increasing a 5 mile easy run every week to 7 miles isn’t going to give you as much fitness as adding those same 2 miles to a mid-week 10 miler. It’s still only 2 miles, but where that 2 miles happens is important. Increase your long run, medium long run, etc. for the most aerobic adaptations. Running more on workout days is another added bonus to your aerobic capacity.

Marathon pace and tempo workouts: These two sessions should be your primary workouts. Marathon pace (MP) workouts – either repetitions or a single run – get you comfortable running at your marathon pace while boosting your fitness level. Tempo workouts are faster (but still aerobic) and provide support to your MP. They’ll make your goal MP easier, both physically and mentally.

Aerobic Boost: Run a progressively faster MP workout where you start at your marathon pace and progress to tempo pace. These can be a little longer than your typical tempo run. Progressive tempo runs helped develop my specific fitness before my 2:39 marathon at Philadelphia and were a staple of my training plan.

Most marathon training plans look similar: long runs, standard distance runs, and your tempo/marathon pace workouts. But what’s going to help you beat your training buddy is how you run these workouts.

Did you negative split your MP workout ending at tempo pace? Did you run a one mile hill at the end of your long runs? Did you skip the VO2 max intervals and instead run 10% more volume?

Compounded over 12 – 14 weeks of marathon training can elevate your fitness and help you get to Boston. Especially when it comes to marathon workouts and their potential to dramatically increase your endurance and turn you into an aerobic powerhouse.

What are your favorite marathon workouts? Do you have a staple that’s allowed you to run a significant PR recently?

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2 Responses to How to Run a Fast Marathon: 3 Ways to Jump Start Your Training
  1. Anthony Lopes

    Hi, I qual for Boston no prob 53 yr old w 3:20 range 3:17 best but want to get sub 3:00. Typ run 40-60 mi week so see from reading this I need to do lots more. Thanks.

  2. tobias

    Just want to say thank you for this article I just read now believe it would help improving my marathon and ultramaraton time this year 2015 its first a marathon qualifyer for comarades 2015 and end of may the comardes marathon I I wanted to know is there a possibilty I can improve on 4hrs 15 to under 3hr40 marathon time my half marathon time is 1h 47?

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